Complicity, Corruption, and Accountability: Asali Solomon on The Days of Afrekete and the January 6 Investigation
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Novelist Asali Solomon joins hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to discuss accountability, the ongoing Congressional investigation into the January 6 insurrection, and her new novel. The Days of Afrekete, an Obama-era story, follows Liselle Belmont, a Black woman throwing a dinner party for her white husband, a politician who is suspected of corruption. As she considers her own personal and political choices, she flashes back to a lost love: her college girlfriend Selena. Solomon reads from the book and talks about depicting accountability and its lack, the intimate costs of being connected to power, and how Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Toni Morrison’s Sula, and Audre Lorde’s Zami influenced her storytelling. She also reflects on how reading the late bell hooks gave her a new vision of herself in the world.
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Excerpt from a conversation
with Asali Solomon
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I wonder if you can talk a little bit about how your character Liselle in The Days of Afrekete compares to the people around her in terms of complicity with the status quo. There’s some really interesting dynamics going on with class, I think.
Asali Solomon: Well, that is a question that I thought a lot about, and I thought a lot more about it as I was writing the book, then I think people have asked me about it. That’s also the reason for setting it during the Obama presidency. What I realized during the Obama presidency is that, you know, until there was actually a Black person in the White House, I felt like Black people had a greater degree of plausible deniability of being implicated in whatever this bloody thing is that is America. I think that in a lot of ways that’s still true, like, a lot of Black people are a lot poorer than other people, extremely marginal, targeted for violence in different ways. But at the same time, the fact that we pulled the lever and cheered for somebody who became the most powerful person in the world, in this country that doesn’t really do a lot to promote the fortunes of anybody except its richest citizens, that took a new level of responsibility at that point. And I think with Liselle, she thinks of herself as somebody who is marginalized, who’s fighting, who’s sort of oppositional in these ways. She’s a Black queer woman who grew up in a working class house in Philadelphia. But the question becomes, when you attain certain kinds of economic and social privileges, does that then change your status in these more ethical ways, right? And so I think like the whole scene with her and Xochitl, and thinking about what it means to have somebody clean your house and literally just do these things for you… Does that put you in a different kind of position ethically? Is it basically just unethical? And I think that she’s better than a lot of people in the book, but Liselle’s also made this decision to create a sort of comfortable life for herself, where she could actually avoid being oppositional and marginalized in a lot of the ways that she imagined if she had made a different kind of choice. And, you know, I don’t think that that’s necessarily unethical in that that in and of itself hurt anybody. But it does compromise her as a person, and it compromises in some ways the quality of her emotional life too.
Whitney Terrell: I felt like Selena, in a way, played the role of her conscience, like Selena is affected by and can’t ignore the past and things like the MOVE bombing, and can’t accommodate herself to power in the way that Liselle is able to. And that’s part of one of the things that I think Liselle loves about her. Does that make any sense?
AS: Oh, definitely. And I think that oddly, though, Selena has this… there’s this moment in the book where Selena is caught in this crazy rainstorm, and she suddenly sort of has this flash about climate change and climate disaster, and was like, Well, I’m always depressed all the time. And now I have a good reason to be depressed all the time. And there’s something also I think about Selena that’s useful for Liselle, who I think would posit herself as very resilient. But in a way, living with your nerves so close to the edge, there could be a kind of resilience that comes from that as well, I think. It is interesting, though, to think about Selena as Liz’s conscience. Selena is also partly modeled after Septimus Smith, who’s a character in Mrs. Dalloway, who, while other Londoners are having dinner parties, is going through this day where he’s really suffering from his post-traumatic stress as a result of having fought in World War I. And so that, too, is a book about people who are sort of whiling away the hours in these leisure class pursuits, having deep thoughts, while other people are in different kinds of battles in the same urban space.
WT: I really like your comments about how once you take power, or once you become involved in power in American politics, you own it in certain ways. And so it’s harder to remain innocent. Kansas City, you know, like most American cities, had a long string of white mayors, and then finally had a Black mayor. And then there was a time during the Obama era, when almost every person of power was an African American male: the head of my university and the police commissioner and the mayor and congressional representative. When you have that power, then you’re connected to the things that the American government is doing. And, during that time, we were fighting the war in Iraq, and so there’s that complexity of once you attain power, then you’re sort of connected to the bad parts of power as well. I mean, it seems like partly the book is about that, also.
AS: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s definitely true. I do think on the flip side of that, that… and I spent a lot of time during the Obama years, thinking about the enormous sort of opposition to him that he encountered, even when he was elected. And what it means to be a first in a lot of these situations, is not that you’re going to come in and just wreck shop and bring on the socialism, but that you actually just try really hard to ingratiate yourself with the total white supremacists who have the real power. And I think like so often, that’s what we’re looking at. But, you know, I think that actually, what you said about the Kansas City and the kind of power that was distributed that sort of began to feature more Black men, I’ve been thinking about that a lot in the last year or so, with regard to Black women, particularly in certain kinds of institutional settings. If something is a hot garbage mess of racism, they’ll just be like, let’s find a Black woman and put her in front of it, and then if any questions about diversity or inclusion, you know, her name can be mentioned and be like, well, we’ve just hired her so she’s been tested. There are different kinds of ethical questions when you are, quote, unquote, represented in these different ways. But there are also questions about the difference between a figurehead and somebody who’s really participating at a higher level.
VVG: I have to take a very small detour here and say that one of my feelings about this question of who’s in power and how people react is that it wasn’t that long ago that directing a creative writing program was a super prestigious thing. And like, I don’t know, kiss the baby, shake the hands, etc. And it’s so interesting to me that this wave of anti-intellectualism, and questioning of the value of MFA programs accompanies women directing a lot of programs, and many women of color—
AS: Want to come direct my program? Because I’m directing my program.
VVG: —which is not to say that I think that there aren’t any critiques of teaching creative writing, but it’s like, oh, there are now more women than men in higher education. And all of a sudden these empowered BIPOC folks and queer folks and disabled folks, who are moving into positions where, theoretically, they could have more access. Now, all of a sudden, oh, that stuff’s not valuable anymore.
AS: Yeah, I mean, all of these things follow a script. And I just wish they would check with other industries that have already, you know… We already did that…
VVG: So I do want to talk about the book’s dips into the past, which brings us to this connection between Selena and Liselle, which is so beautiful and romantic and powerful. And as we’re taping with you, I’ve seen this all over my social media feeds, and in conversations with other writers, everyone’s kind of reeling from the news of the death of bell hooks who was so influential. Your book is, among other things, it’s a queer Black love story. And I saw you post also about being stunned about her death. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about her work and its influence on you.
AS: So I texted somebody, and I said, bell hooks was my college, and she was the first person I read who really allowed me to see myself in the world, very clearly as in terms of like representation. And really just in this very, sort of erudite, but also accessible, and also passionate language of analysis and thinking about what it meant to be a Black woman encountering the literature and images in this world.
About | Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol • Philadelphia keeps revisiting MOVE bombing history because we never truly learned it | The Philadelphia Inquirer Opinion • Rashida Tlaib berates Mark Meadows for using black woman as ‘a prop’ at hearing | POLITICO • Liz Cheney Takes Center Stage in Jan. 6 Inquiry | The New York Times • Significant Other | The New Yorker • House Seeks Contempt Charge Against Meadows in Jan. 6 Inquiry | The New York Times • Meadows and the Band of Loyalists: How They Fought to Keep Trump in Power | The New York Times • A Dinner Party About Lost Selves and Lost Chances | Electric Literature • The Good Wife • The West Wing • Zami by Audre Lorde • Sula by Toni Morrison • Angela Davis • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf • Black Looks by bell hooks • Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Anne Kniggendorf.